How many times have you asked your children or grandchildren if they washed their hands before they sit down to eat? It seems to be a daily conversation in my house, and my kids get more and more exasperated the more that we mention hand washing. They know hygiene is important. They understand this whole germ-a-phobic thing, but they don’t really care, because they are too hungry!!
Our Scripture today starts out with a similar argument, at least on the surface. The Pharisees are yelling at Jesus because his disciples are eating with dirty hands.
Now, I’m not a fan of dirty hands myself, so this makes perfect sense to me. I’d probably have fussed too if James and Peter had propped their elbows up on my table without scrubbing first.
But this is not an argument about getting rid of germs. This is not a discussion about being dirty. This goes so much deeper than those things. This is an accusation of unworthiness, unholiness, unrighteousness.
Throughout the history of the Chosen people there have been laws about clean and unclean. There are clean and unclean foods. There are clean and unclean people. There are times when uncleanliness is for a day and times when it lasts for months or years. In fact much of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are spent explaining these holiness codes.
The people of God were called to be holy as God is holy. But what is Holy? Holy to us means set aside, other, and usually its used to describe ones personality, feelings, thoughts. But in these days holiness was an external thing. Something you had to prove, show outwardly on a daily basis.
The Pharisees believed that all Jewish people should abide by all of the Holiness codes. While these codes do not say that everyone is to wash before eating, they do specify that priests are to wash before eating meat, so that they may be pure. The Pharisees had taken this to the extreme claiming that everyone should be ritually clean before they eat.
Jesus seems to take a different view of this whole purity thing. As he does of so many things really. What matters more, clean hands? Or clean hearts?
Now chances are if you ask your mom this question before dinner she will send you quickly to the sink to wash up, at least this mom would. But we must remember that this cleanliness is not about germs or germ transmission.
To be “clean” meant that you were ready to worship God. You had set yourself aside. You were ready to be in God’s presence. If they had performed a ritual washing then they were no longer ordinary or eating with ordinary hands.
Or at least that’s what the ritual started out to mean. As most religious rituals the meaning had slipped away over time. It was no longer what the washing symbolized that was important, but the washing itself.
Think of the rituals we do in our worship services. And before you say “we don’t have any rituals, Pastor” think really hard.
The candle lighting (Carrying the light of Christ into our midst and following the light of Christ into the world)
Carrying in the cross (being led by the cross of Jesus to God and to the world)
Reading all 4 scripture lessons (God’s word is revealed in the New and Old Testaments)
Communion (In remembrance of Jesus)
Baptism (Being claimed as God’s Children)
Passing of the Peace. (Being a part of the body of Christ and acknowledging other parts of the body)
Each of these things has a specific meaning. We don’t just do them because we’ve always done them, because if we did than those things become idols rather than aids in worship.
Jesus points out that those who have become so focused on ritual have let their hearts become unclean, or distant from God. They have left the intent of the word and instead follow human tradition.
Ouch! Does that hurt anyone else here? It’s like the story of the pot roast. One day a young girl watches her mom make the Sunday diner pot roast and she asks “Why do you cut the ends off of the roast?” Her mom says “Because Grandma always did.” So the girl asks her grandma “Why do you cut the ends off of the roast?” and her grandma responds “Because my mom always did.” So the girl goes over to the great grandma sitting in a chair in the living room. She crawls into her lap and asks “Why do you cut the ends off of the roast?” Her great grandma smiled and said “Well honey, because I never has a pan big enough to cook it all.”
What had been a necessity became an unnecessary and wasteful ritual. Without knowing the reasons they were repeating irrational actions.
What Jesus’ accuses these leaders of doing is much worse however. In this passage Jesus says that they follow rules and rituals not because their hearts are close to God, but for personal gain. Jesus says that they have been known to claim that all they have is a gift to God, an offering so therefore they cannot help out their mothers and fathers. They cannot follow a commandment “To honor and obey their parents” because in their own greed they have declared whatever they have extra should go to God.
On the outside it looks okay, but Jesus says the inside is where sinfulness hides. Would you rather have clean hands or clean hearts? He asks.
Jesus tells them that what goes into the body does not make it clean or unclean, or worthy or unworthy to come into God’s presence. After all, as crass as it sounds, what we eat doesn’t stay inside forever. Now, this is not a Biblical excuse to eat all kinds of Junk and abuse your body. All Jesus is saying here is that sin, the actions and thoughts that separate us from God come from within, not from outside of ourselves.
Since the heart is the center of one’s decision making process to turn your heart away from God or to have it filled with evil intentions is a grievous sin.
If your heart is full of these things, if you cannot show compassion, love, forgiveness, hope then it is in very poor spiritual condition. Each of the attitudes Jesus names in this passage “adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly; reflect a heart that has turned away from God. This sin will affect our relationship with others so it has personal and social consequences.
Jesus tells the Pharisees and us that we should stop worrying about our neighbor’s dirty hands and start looking at our own filthy hearts.
Instead of participating in the list of unholy behavior, perhaps we should focus on things that will help us continue to clean and renew our hearts.
Things like prayer, confession, reconciliation, Sabbath Keeping, Tithe and offering giving, public worship, service work, hospitality and forgiveness. These things will help us to see God in our midst, to recognize God’s presence in the world.
By focusing on these things we can begin again to show the world God’s loving plans for humanity.
Rituals for rituals sake are meaningless at best, and intentionally harmful at worse. May we worry less about traditions and more about sharing God with those in need. May we worry less about clean hands and focus on having clean hearts.